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On Hill, lawmakers fight fear with ... a steam iron?

The House closes. The Senate won't. Among mixed signals, appeals for calm.

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There are no towers of smoking rubble in the US Capitol. The tile floors still gleam. Bronze and marble statues still line the corridors.

But the outward appearance of sameness is deceiving. War has come to Capitol Hill - though the most potent enemy so far is plain old fear.

In this climate of apprehension - where people were already convinced that Congress was a target on Sept. 11 and where a local think tank is considering the topic, "What if Congress were obliterated?" - rumors ran through the halls of Congress, leading to a state of widespread confusion.

In the end, the House of Representatives closed for safety reasons. The Senate soldiered on. The mixed signals leave the populace wondering whom to believe when it comes to assessing the level of danger.

Among the most distressing rumors:

• The anthrax released in Sen. Tom Daschle's offices on Monday was "weapons-grade."

• Anthrax spores had been detected in the Senate ventilation system or in the underground tunnels that link the various office buildings on the Hill. (Both rumors later turned out not to be true.)

After a meeting with President Bush early Wednesday morning, House and Senate leaders left with an understanding that both houses would shut down to allow health officials to sweep the buildings.

But when Senator Daschle met with senators, he found his colleagues determined to stay put. They didn't like the message they felt closing would send to the American people. "We're vowing to keep working, even if it means carrying a briefcase and sitting under a tree," says Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D) of Maryland, whose Senate offices were among the first to be closed to test for exposure to anthrax.

Early on, the lesson in the Senate was to curb words that fueled fear. In private meetings this week, senators cautioned each other to speak simply. Purge the scare words. Above all, be precise. A new lexicon started to emerge about the anthrax "incident" (not crisis.) Senators were careful to say that people weren't "infected." They were "exposed." Offices weren't being "evacuated" (scare word); instead, the staff was being "excused."


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